This is another series that I feel I probably would have missed completely if I didn’t sign myself up as a Hugo Awards voter. And that would have been a damn shame because I’ve now discovered another awesome fantasy author.
It might be odd of me to try and make this distinction, but The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune are not so much as a pair of novellas – they are too tightly entwined for that. Rather, like their protagonists, they should be thought of as twins. The story does not feel complete if you try and read one without the other.
In The Black Tides of Heaven, Mokaya and Akeha are the youngest children of the Protector of the kingdom. Seen through the eyes of their elder sibling and the Abbot of the Grand Monastery, Lady Sanao is swiftly drawn up as a ruthless and conniving ruler. Within the first few pages, she pulls the rug out of from under the Abbot’s feet by twisting a deal they made. Rather than letting her elder child serve as his ward like everyone expected, she deliberately gives birth to the twins and hands them over instead, leaving the shocked Abbot unexpectedly in her debt.
From the very beginning, both Mokaya and Akeha are at risk of being used as pawns by their mother. Mokaya is especially vulnerable; as soon as they show a talent for prophecy, their mother tries to exploit it, making it harder for them to escape her grasp. Akeha; much better at judging the motivations of others and fearful of living under the shadow of their sibling, instead runs away to join a resistance movement, keeping the pair separated for years. But this is not the only thing driving a wedge between the twins. The second point of contention is based on a shared crush they have on the same man and the resulting jealousy is more venomous than expected.
This triggers a more monumental change. At this point, I feel I have to mention an interesting part of JY Yang’s worldbuilding: all people are considered genderless until they go through ‘confirmation.’ As youths, Mokaya and Akeha promised never to go through and confirm. One twin then breaks this promise, in part as a response to their crush, and the other goes on to act in a reactionary manner.
This leads to a curious phenomenon where the protagonists are genderless for nearly the first half of the story, and you might end up making judgements on the both of them based on your preconceptions. (If you’ve read Ann Leckie’s books on the Imperial Radch, it’s a bit like that.) And depending on what those preconceptions are, they may be turned on their head before you get to the latter half of Black Tides. However, by the time you reach The Red Threads of Fortune, the twins have developed fully into their adult identities, and the gender aspect takes more of a back seat.
Another difference between the two novellas is the structure. The Black Tides of Heaven, told more from Akeha’s perspective, goes through several time skips. Since it has to cover roughly 35 years in about 250 pages this is understandable, but some of the transitions feel a little bit jarring. The Red Threads of Fortune is the opposite; told from the view of Mokaya with a compact story that spans only a few days, the book’s narrative flows much more naturally.
This minor point in Black Tides is the only critique I have of JY Yang’s writing. Otherwise, I find that their prose is nearly as beautiful and well crafted as the covers of these novellas. Their ability to be so descriptive without getting excessively discursive (which does not work well with novella-length works) is almost reminiscent of Ursula K Le Grun. And they lend their descriptive ability to a wonderfully fantastic world.
I might have spent most of my time here describing a story of family drama and political intrigue, but really there is so much more to be explored. The setting could roughly be considered ‘silk-punk’, with a kingdom that runs on a mixture of elemental magic and high technology. This is a place where you can tame and train a velociraptor and engrave someone’s bones with magical tattoos. But this magic also exists in parallel with technological savvy, so you also have people able to engineer purely mechanical munitions, used to rebel against magic users; and perform complex surgeries such as lung transplants. And skin grafts. With chameleon-like lizard skin.
And none of it feels forced – it all sort of flows together organically.
These two novellas are technically the first two parts of the Tensorate series, with the third instalment released last month. If the first two are anything to go by, I’m hoping for many more entries to come. It’s an interesting choice that JY Yang has made to work entirely within the shorter novella length for these books, but I hope it works out for them.
So for the sake of Bingo-ing: these two make up the start of a new series, so that’s ‘And So it Begins’ knocked off.